The top two teams in the country will collide in the Superdome, as SEC foes Alabama and LSU meet again this season, this time with the 2012 BCS National Championship on the line.
Les Miles was tabbed the National Coach of the Year as his Tigers ran the table and finished 13-0, while capturing the SEC title with a 42-10 rout of Georgia in the conference championship game. Not many teams even presented a challenge to LSU's run to New Orleans, with a 19-6 win over Mississippi State in mid-September and a 9-6 overtime win in Tuscaloosa against Alabama in early November representing the closest contests.
Miles knows that the experience of being in this position in the recent past is certainly a plus.
"The good news is that we've been in this game before, understand what it means to play game with a month out and how to divide the time. We're prepared. The first place we will start is the first game where we played them. It might be rendered as different. I think there will be some similarities and some contrasting styles."
LSU is seeking its second national crown in the last four years, winning the title in 2008 with a 38-24 win over Ohio State. Overall, the Tigers are 22-19-1 in postseason play with wins in five of their last six bowl games. Last year, LSU bested Texas A&M, 41-24, in the Cotton Bowl.
Nick Saban's Crimson Tide have had yet another impressive season, winning 11 games. It marked the third time in the last four years that Alabama amassed 11 victories in a season. However, the overtime loss to the Tigers left Alabama second-fiddle in the SEC. Still, the team closed out November with three straight wins to remain within striking distance of a spot in New Orleans and edged out some potent teams to get there.
Saban is certainly excited about the opportunity his team has.
"Our players and everyone associated with our program are very excited about the opportunity to play in the national championship game. We are very appreciative of the chance to play an LSU team that we have tremendous respect for, and we are looking forward to the challenge."
Alabama is just two years removed from capturing a national title, topping Texas in the 2010 BCS Championship Game, 37-21, for the school's 13th national crown. The team is making its fourth BCS Bowl appearance and third in the last four years under Saban's watchful eye.
Alabama is the most storied postseason program, owning the NCAA record for bowl game appearances (58) and bowl wins (32). The Crimson Tide are 32-22-3 all-time in postseason play, with three wins in the last four bowl games. Last year, the Tide rolled over Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, 49-7.
This marks the 76th all-time meeting between these two teams. Alabama holds a 45-25-5 series advantage, as the two programs have split the last four meetings.
The Tigers' defense received a great deal of attention this season, but the offense also had its moments in 2011. LSU comes into the postseason averaging 38.5 ppg. The passing attack struggled at times and accounted for only 160.2 ypg, but that was due in large part to uncertainty under center. Jarrett Lee got the nod at quarterback with the off-the-field issues surrounding Jordan Jefferson. Lee was solid, completing just over 62 percent of his passes, for 1,306 yards, with 13 TDs and just three INTs. Jefferson earned playing time down the stretch and played well in a limited time frame, completing 60.2 percent of his throws, for 684 yards, with six TDs and just one INT. Rueben Randle is the team's top option in the vertical game, leading the Tigers in receptions (50), receiving yards (904) and TD catches (eight).
Everything LSU does offensively comes off the run. The Tigers average 215.2 yards per game and have a couple of options in the backfield to rely on. Michael Ford only got two starts this season, but led the team in rushing with 755 yards on 6.1 yards per carry with seven TDs. Spencer Ware (700 yards, eight TDs), Alfred Blue (539 yards, seven TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (320 yards, eight TDs) all made contributions as well.
The LSU defense is the primary reason the Tigers are playing for the national title. One of the nation's premier units, LSU limited the opposition to just 10.5 ppg (second nationally), showing equal disdain for the run (third nationally at 85.5 ypg) and the pass (eighth nationally at 166.6 ypg). The result was 252.1 yards per game against (second nationally). Overall, LSU racked up 37 sacks and forced 30 turnovers.
Playmakers abound on the defensive side of the ball for LSU, starting with a pair of First-Team All-American cornerbacks in Tyrann Mathieu (team-high 70 tackles, two INTs, five fumble recoveries, six forced fumbles) and Morris Claiborne (46 tackles, six INTs). Matthieu was regarded as the nation's top defender and was named the Thorpe Award winner this year as a result.
In the front seven, Sam Montgomery (44 tackles, 13.0 TFL, nine sacks) and Barkevious Mingo (41 tackles, 13.5 TFL, eight sacks) have been disruptive up the field.
Offensively speaking, the Crimson Tide present a balanced attack, with near- equal ability to move the chains on the ground (219.8 ypg) and through the air (213.6 ypg). However, like LSU, it is the run that sets up everything else for Alabama.
Heisman finalist Trent Richardson had a remarkable 2011 campaign, racking up 1,583 yards and 20 TDS on 131.9 yards per game and 6.0 yards per carry, earning the Doak Walker Award and being named the SEC Offensive Player of the Year. A true workhorse, Richardson amassed 263 carries this season, while also showing the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield (27 receptions, 327 yards, three TDs).
A.J. McCarron played well under center in his first season at QB for Alabama, completing 66.7 percent of his passes, for 2,400 yards, with 16 TDs against five interceptions. Wideout Marquis Maze (56 receptions, 627 yards, one TD) is the team's top target downfield.
If any defensive unit has the ability to match play for play with LSU's dominant squad, it is Alabama. The Crimson Tide finished the season as the top defense in the country, leading the nation in scoring defense (8.8 ppg), rush defense (74.9 ypg), pass defense (116.3 ypg) and of course total defense (191.3 ypg).
All-American talent abounds on the UA defense, headlined by linebackers Dont'a Hightower (81 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, one INT), Courtney Upshaw (45 tackles, 17.0 TFL, 8.5 sacks) and Nico Johnson (43 tackles, 5.5 TFL, one sack, one INT).
Upshaw thinks the team is ready for its biggest challenge to date.
"We have been able to use this time to get back into game shape and rest since the Auburn game and I think that has really helped us out. There have been no regrets this season and hopefully we can finish it off with a national championship."
The Alabama secondary features talented DBs Mark Barron (66 tackles, two INTs), Robert Lester (36 tackles, two INTs) and Dre Kirpatrick (26 tackles, nine PBUs).
The SEC is finally going to lose a national title game, but then again, it will capture its sixth straight championship as well.